Even a great detective must recharge the “little gray cells.”
Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, has been featured in over two dozen films since he first appeared in the 1920s. The first cycle of such films comprised three British outings in the early 1930s when Austin Trevor portrayed Poirot. Forty years later in 1974, a new cycle began with Murder on the Orient Express in which Albert Finney played Poirot. The pattern of an exotic location, a murder, and a bevy of suspects played by well-known actors and actresses would be repeated over six more films during the next 14 years. One thing would change, however. Peter Ustinov took over the role of Hercule Poirot with Death on the Nile in 1978 and soon made it his own. More recently, we have been treated to a new Poirot, David Suchet, in a fine series of films made for television.
Ustinov’s second outing as Hercule Poirot was in Evil Under the Sun (1982). The setting this time was a beautiful Mediterranean island in 1937. Among those playing the suspects were James Mason, Sylvia Miles, Diana Rigg, Maggie Smith, and Roddy McDowell. The result was a fine workout for Poirot’s little gray cells.
Anchor Bay has now released Evil Under the Sun on DVD in a fine-looking package.
A London insurance company calls in Hercule Poirot to solve the case of a woman murdered in the English countryside and also the issue of a diamond that a wealthy industrialist wants insured. The industrialist gave the original diamond as a present to Arlena Marshall, but he later demanded its return when Arlena dumped him. Eventually she did return the diamond, but what she returned proved to be a fake.
Poirot follows Arlena to a beautiful Mediterranean island where she is vacationing at a resort with her new husband and his daughter. A number of other guests are staying on the island and all have a reason to hate Arlena. Then Arlena is found murdered and the resort’s proprietress implores Poirot to take the case and clear it up discretely. Eventually all is revealed, even though for a while, it appears that all the suspects had a strong alibi for the time when Arlena was killed.
With Evil Under the Sun, Peter Ustinov had settled into the role of Poirot comfortably. He conveys the man’s vanity and insufferability wonderfully, by facial gesture, by body language, and by his words. Ustinov is perhaps a more massive individual that one visualizes Poirot to be from Christie’s novels, but that is just quibbling. He delivers the essence of the character to a “t.”
The suspects are all effectively portrayed by a fine array of British film stars. As Athena Marshall, Diana Rigg is suitably glamorous and catty. Maggie Smith is perfect as the resort’s proprietress and a former musical theatre contemporary of Arlena’s. Roddy McDowell does a nice turn as a sort of gossip columnist who pretends to be world-weary, but is just more pathetic than anything else. Two key roles are played in a nice understated fashion by a couple of lesser-known young British players, Jane Birkin and Nicholas Clay (who reminded me a little of Jude Law).
The island of Majorca was used for the resort setting (intended to be an island off the coast of Albania) and it looks beautiful in this film — from the grounds of the resort to the rugged cliffs to the beautiful little beaches tucked in amongst the rocked inlets. The producers apparently looked all over the Mediterranean for the proper locale before settling on Majorca where director Guy Hamilton lived. His love for the area is obvious from the way the camera lingers over so many of the island’s beautiful features.
Anchor Bay’s DVD of Evil Under the Sun is a very good-looking presentation of the film. Aside from some occasional softness to the image, the colours are bright and clear, and very natural looking. Edge enhancement is virtually non-existent and one is free to appreciate the beauty of the island set against the blue skies of the Mediterranean. The transfer is presented in 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen with 25 scene selections. The sound is Dolby Digital mono and as with other titles in this series, does the job quite adequately.
Among the disc’s supplements is a 16-minute featurette “The Making of Evil Under the Sun.” It appears to have been made at the time of the original filming and it’s not too informative on the making-of side of things. It focuses chiefly on short interviews with the main players in which they are asked what they think of their characters. A nice theatrical trailer is included as are short talent biographies and a four-page insert covering the career of Agatha Christie.
I don’t have anything major here. One minor item that seemed to stay in my mind was a very short establishing sequence before Poirot meets the wealthy industrialist for the first time. We are treated to a beach scene with powerful motorboats and people wearing bathing suits that looks more like 1980 than the film’s 1937 setting.
Another annoying point was the use of James Mason. He’s underutilized, and he looks rather bored by it all — a shame, for he’s a favourite of mine.
If you like the sort of convoluted plot that is a hallmark of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, you won’t be disappointed by Evil Under the Sun. The cast is uniformly excellent, especially Peter Ustinov as Poirot, and the setting is delightful. The resolution of the murder is quite interesting and was a good reminder to me to overlook nothing that occurs in a Christie story. Everything occurs with a reason. Kudos to Anchor Bay for a fine job on the DVD.